Blake and his guys used the same moves (said the same words, even) but Peter and his friends were constantly refining, constantly growing. Soon, they were able to act as a single, unified consciousness; beating Blake became a matter of routine. Four weeks in, the attacks stopped. Peter and Kora were initially puzzled, but Eun (of course) saw the reason for it.
“Dissona’s evolving,” she said. Kora rummaged through her locker.
“How can that be?” Peter demanded. “Didn’t you say she that she couldn’t stand change?”
“It’s not a choice,” Eun elaborated. “She yearns for stasis, but existence won’t allow it. We can reliably beat the ass off her goons, so she’s decided to bench them and save them for later. She’s trying to strategize, in other words.”
Kora grunted, shoving a stack of books into the upper cabinet of her locker. “It won’t accelerate her demonic ascendance. From an arcane perspective, she’s already injected a fixed amount of energy into her minions. There’s a kind of…” she struggled to find the words. “There’s a kind of pact you commit to when you use that style of magic.”
“Like a 401k,” Peter said. “Premature withdrawal comes with a penalty. You have to let your money sit and grow.”
“Mm hmm.” Kora nodded. “Exactly.”
“Can we shift focus?” Peter asked. “Blake’s backing off, so we can ease up on the go-team-go stuff, right?”
“Sure.” Eun shrugged.
“Yes!” Peter pumped his fist. “I was getting tired of all those post-battle debriefs.”
“I was enjoying them.” Kora sighed wistfully.
“We’ve got two months until prom,” Peter said. “What do we do to fill the time?”
“Back to the basics,” Eun said. “Prep our stuff, generalized training, keep an eye out…that sort of thing.”
“Great,” Peter smacked a fist into an open palm. “I’ve got a big-ass list of stuff to get ready.”
Kora raised a finger. “Word of advice. I’ve been through a lot of these—you know, gear up, make plans, put on your game face…everyone neglects the same thing. And it’s super important.” She gave her friends a weighted look.
“What?” Peter prompted.
“Try and have fun.”
“Destination, not the journey, right?”
This, of course, came from Eun.
While the three teen-heroes had been fighting Blake, Holly had spent an entire decade trekking across the Territories.
Ten years ago, she’d found a way to kill the spider-beasts. It had taken six months to hone her magic to where she could do it reliably. During that time, she’d taken shelter within her cave, feasting on the insects that roamed its depths. They tasted pungent and cloying, but they’d kept her alive. Once she’d improved her offensive magic, she’d struck out across the Territories, not just eating her enemies, but fashioning armor from their gleaming carapace. She was now clad in a rough patchwork of chitinous shell.
Ten years of roaming the Territories. Ten years of monotony and drudgery.
Her desire to live had driven her magic to new heights. When she’d trained with Estilian, she’d experienced long days of teeth-grinding frustration, but when he’d threatened her life, she’d risen to the occasion. And then later, when she’d been driven to the cave by gnashing spider-beasts, the prospect of death had made her even better.
She could now wield something akin to a laser whip; it cut her enemies’ forelegs and thoraxes into bleeding chunks. She’d also learned telekinesis. She could grapple with her assailants using mind alone, disrupting their momentum and lining them up for devastating combos.
But she was far from safe; the Territories’ magic was warping her mind.
(Or it was warping reality itself.).
Her journey should have taken half a year, nine months tops. But she’d been stuck in the wasteland for over a decade. She’d followed the Raging Centaur (a constellation whose bottom-most star pointed south) with unwavering diligence, so she knew she wasn’t drifting or straying off course.
That wasn’t all. Last year, the spider-beasts had started to wear her face.
Now, their thoraxes were topped by her blonde-haired head. She destroyed her pursuers with eldritch weaponry, littering the desert with their leaking body parts, but she couldn’t bring herself to attack their heads. Back when they’d been insects, she’d gone for the skull every time—damaging their brains was the easiest way to cut them down. But after they’d stolen her appearance (hence her new name for them: face-stealers) she couldn’t bring herself to go for their Holly-faced noggins. She found other ways; she would slice their limbs off, then target their torsos with a heavy blast.
A trail of heads marked her passage, dotting the Territories with countless variations of her decapitated visage. Some looked angry, some sad, but most just stared blankly ahead. As she sawed the meat away from their chitin, she would keep her eyes on her grisly task, staunchly ignoring her macabre reflections.
Holly was surrounded by reminders of herself, yet she refused to acknowledge them.
Her muscles grew gnarled and ropy, her skin turned dry and spotted. Her hair—now a long, gray-white veil—cast a constant shadow across her features. During her fifteenth year in this brutal perdition, she began to wonder if she’d lost her mind.
Had she ever been a cheerleader, or was that just a dream? It seemed absurd that she existed at all. Her reality narrowed further and further, until all that remained were two glaring truths: her endless trek and her relentless pursuers. Her world had been reduced to her meaningless quest, the unfeeling sun, and eternal combat.
Was this Hell? She didn’t know.
All she knew was she had to keep going. So she kept pushing through an alien nightmare, surrounded by the one thing that was most familiar to her:
Her own image.